When it comes to Covid-safe air travel, face masks do not offer sufficient protection from viral transmission in the cabin. This assertion comes from Autostop Aviation, a Serbia-based manufacturer of seat covers which has moved into the area of passenger separation screens, citing the paper ‘Face Coverings, Aerosol Dispersion and Mitigation of Virus Transmission Risk‘, written by several Scottish research institutes such as University of Edinburgh. The paper states that face coverings alone do not ensure Covid-safe air travel when passengers are seated close together.
A safety measure taken by several airlines including Delta, JetBlue and Southwest has been to leave middle seats in economy vacant to achieve a degree of social distancing on board. However, as passenger demand rises, keeping middle seats empty is not a viable solution as load factors and revenues are reduced.
Indeed some airlines have seen no commercial option other than to sell as many seats as possible, with the wearing of face masks mandatory as a measure to minimise the risk of infection. However, the medical paper states that breath can leak from the side of face masks, increasing the risk of virus transmission when passengers sit shoulder to shoulder.
The solution, according to Autostop Aviation, is measures such as its Passenger Protection Window (PPW) for airline seats, designed in partnership with RAS Interiors. These screens provide an extra level of separation between passengers in fully occupied economy cabins, and can help minimise the transmission of any pathogens from the mask of a neighbouring passenger. The company says that the screens have passed numerous regulatory tests and trials, with 21J DOA approval for cabin installation.
Dr Cathal Cummins, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Institute for Infrastructure & Environment from Heriot-Watt University (Edinburgh), and Dr Ignazio Maria Viola, Reader at the Institute for Energy Systems of the School of Engineering from University of Edinburgh, who co-authored the works, said:
“Wearers of face masks need to be made aware that jets of air can leak out of the sides and back as well as the front of their masks. This could be particularly important when using masks on public transport, or when seated on aircraft.
“When seated shoulder-to-shoulder, the use of personal protection windows (PPW) in between passengers on aircraft would reduce the risk of neighbouring passengers being exposed to leaking air from face masks of people seated next to them. It would also provide protection from the frontal jet if adjacent passengers were to speak to each other.
“The reduction in risk can only be achieved if face masks are used in conjunction with PPW and not as a replacement for wearing a mask, and only if PPW are cleaned after every flight. If all three measures are mandatory, together with good personal hygiene, airlines can increase passenger protection.
“Without a plastic barrier installed, such as PPW, passengers wearing a mask (in close proximity to others) could be more of a hazard sitting next to each other than sitting directly facing them. The effectiveness of PPW will depend also on the strength and direction of air currents and extraction within the aircraft. Careful attention must be given to such air flows when using PPW.
“In summary, our recommendation is that airlines should make face masks mandatory, and if used in conjunction with PPW and regular cleaning of PPW, Covid-19 contamination risk is kept to a minimum.”
Autostop Aviation has secured global manufacturing rights for the PPW and now has more than 1,200 staff mass-producing the screens.
Jonathan Robinson CEO of Autostop Aviation commented, “We are doing all we can to assist our airline customers regain passengers’ confidence to fly again. PPW offers added passenger protection from any neighbouring face masks leaks. We are also bringing a new fabric and synthetic leather to the airline seat cover industry, containing anti-microbial properties, to assist further towards enhancing a safer inflight passenger experience.”